Mature Life Features

Cecil Scaglione, Editor

Baltimore Crab Lovers Take the Cake

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By Beverly Rahn Scaglione

Mature Life Features

Baltimore’s Washington Square
— Cecil Scaglione photo

BALTIMORE — It was time to test the proclamation that this town on the Patapsco River is the “Crab Cake Capital of the Continent.” We’d sampled crab cakes over the years prepared in kitchens throughout Pennsylvania, New York, Louisiana, California, Washington and Virginia, to mention a few.  Our only rule was: eschew any that involved the “F” word – frozen.

We set up our command post in the Peabody Court Hotel perched on the edge of Washington Square, the platform for the nation’s first official monument to our first president that caps the tony Mount Vernon District. You can climb the 228 steps inside the 178-foot white marble memorial for $1. It was built in 1829 by Robert Mills, the same man who a couple of decades later designed the D.C. obelisk honoring Washington.

We strolled south past sauces and scents of the world emanating from restaurants along a dozen blocks of Charles Street leading to the waterfront’s inner harbor. We initiated our crab-cake mission at Phillips Harborplace restaurant. This outlet is part of the family firm that opened its first dining room in 1956 and currently makes more than 100,000 crab cakes a day for distribution around the globe.

As we munched on the signature miniature crab cakes and a soft-shell-crab sandwich, our server explained that the key to these seafood succulents is simple: “They’re 98 percent crab meat and prepared with tender loving care.”

Back at our hotel, we crossed the square to Mount Vernon Place Methodist Church to read the wall-mounted plaque commemorating it as the site of Francis Scott Key’s death. As we ambled back to the hotel, a relaxing resident hailed us from the stoop of his townhouse and, after opening courtesies, said Phillips’ crab cakes were atop his list. He also referred us to Little Italy, eight inner-city square blocks that boast more than two dozen restaurants.

“I’ve never had a bad meal in Little Italy,” he said. He just finds a restaurant that isn’t busy “and get served well because the competition is so keen.” We decided to try the crab cakes at Aldo’s restaurant, which he and others  recommended highly. It was our first jumbo-lump kind. No one worth their crab-cake credentials will settle for less. Every crab has two large cartilage-free muscles, one on each side, that power and propel their rear fins. These are used for the top-of-the-line jumbo-lump crab cakes.

The next morning, we trundled back down to the bayfront where the tall ship USS Constellation – America’s last all-sail warship – anchors the revitalized harbor. We hopped onto one of the water taxis that depot there. 

Our first stop was Tide Point, where we boarded a jitney to Fort McHenry, the inspiration for our national anthem. The garrison at this fort three miles from the city’s commercial core rebuffed an attack by the British fleet in September 1814. The 25-hour siege was witnessed by a young attorney named Francis Scott Key. When he saw the 32-foot U.S. banner still blowing in the wind behind the fort’s cannons after the British departed, he wrote a poem called “The Defense of Fort McHenry.” The words later were tacked onto the melody of a bawdy British beer-drinking ballad and became “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Back at Harborplace, we followed the red-brick road that wraps around the inlet past the National Aquarium and  Maryland Science Center to get to the Rusty Scupper in our pursuit of crab-cake perfection. The crab cakes there were tanged with sweet mustard. As magnificent as these were, we had saved the best for our last day.

The unchallenged  “Queen of Crab Cakes” works daily at the Lexington Market, which hasn’t closed its doors since 1792. This longest continuously operating market in the country is a 15-minute walk from the Peabody, but we toook a 10-minute detour  through the Westminster Church burial grounds. Edgar Alan Poe’s grave is marked here by a concrete stone carved with a black bird and one of the writer’s most famous lines – “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.'”

As we entered Lexington Market, Bill Devine was behind Faidley’s crustacean counter, which also sells muskrat and racoon during season. He introduced us to his wife, Nancy, whose grandfather opened the seafood stand in 1886. She was delighted to discuss her crab cakes. “Boiling takes the flavor and fat out of crabs,” she said, “so we steam them, or broil them. But my crab cakes are designed to be fried. That gives them the crusty exterior and moist interior. Fry them like a steak – very hot – to seal in the juices and flavors.” She said she makes the traditional claw-meat crab cakes as well as jumbo-lump.

“It takes about 24 crabs to make one pound of jumbo-lump crab meat. Each crab cake uses about six or seven ounces – whatever my hands can hold. They’re bigger than a baseball but smaller than a softball.”

The rest is Tender Loving Care. The results are Cosmic Crustacean Cuisine. And a new crab-cake rule: eschew them all until we return to Baltimore.

Mature Life Features, Copyright 2004

Written by Cecil Scaglione

June 20, 2012 at 8:21 am

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